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“Careful Speech Concerning John 3:16”
The Second Sunday in Lent
“For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.”
Every three years, the lectionary places those words in the path of the church, and, every time they roll back around, it seems important to speak about them as carefully as we can, because, across the centuries, they have come to occupy such an enormous place in the hearts and minds of so many Christians.
For many millions of dear and good souls, those words, “For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life,” are the words which most clearly draw the line between Christians and the rest of the world; which, in the minds of millions, is the line between those who will go, forever, to heaven when they die, and those who will go, forever, to hell.
For countless millions of dear and sincere people, that is the clear and plain truth of John 3:16: Whosoever believes what Christians believe about Jesus will go to heaven; whosoever does not, will not. And, for many years, it was, as well, for me; until I actually began to meet real people, and make real friends, who did not believe what I believe about Jesus, but whose lives embodied, in clear and undeniable ways, the Spirit of God; Jews, Muslims, Hindus; people whose lives so fully embodied the Spirit of God that to believe they were going to eternal torment when they died, for no other reason than believing what their parents and grandparents believe, the same way I believe what my parents and grandparents believe, eventually became something I could no longer pretend to believe. I knew better, and, in order to be an honest man, I had to say better.
For me, that long spiritual journey has been more about the Holy Spirit than the Holy Bible. But, it has helped that, along the way, I have come to see that the gospel of John, with it’s powerful verses such as John 3:16-18, “Those who believe in Jesus will not perish, but those who do not believe are condemned already,” and John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus,” was not written about our modern, massive, powerful Christian religion in opposition to other faiths, but, rather, for a small minority community of believers within Judaism; Jews who, by the time the gospel of John was written, in the eighties or nineties A.D., had been put out of the synagogue for believing in Jesus; which means that we have to be very careful about how we use John’s words in our world; lest we make them mean, in our time, something they did not mean, in their time.
And, anyway, let’s be honest; what we believe usually has less to do with Bible verses than with what rings most true in the deepest corner of our soul. Let’s be honest; if what we believe was really all about what the Bible says, we’d put as much weight on Luke 14:33 as we put on John 3:16. But then, in order to be saved, we would not only have to believe the right thing about Jesus, but, also, give up all of our possessions; which we all know we are not going to do, no matter what the Bible says.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t need to give up all our possessions, but we do need to be honest, and say what we all already know is so; that everything we say is about the Bible is not really about the Bible. Rather, the truth is, we believe what we believe because we believe it, and, more often than not, what we believe is what rings most true in the depth of our soul.
And, even that can sometimes change, because of who we meet, and come to know; theology chasing friendship.
Which may be part of what God had in mind, anyway. After all, when God sent that angel choir to light up the night sky over Bethlehem, it was to announce, not the binding of a book, but the birthing of a baby; God, in person, in a person.
Or, to quote John 3:16, “God so loved the world, God gave God’s only Son.” God; in person . . . in a person.
And, still, it happens, over and over again. What happened once in a big way in Bethlehem happens still in small ways in Jackson; the Holy Spirit comes to people through people; as inexplicably, unpredictably and undeniably as the Wind.